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Why Does Michael Oren Think American Jewish Democrats Need 'Conversion Therapy'?

Israel's former ambassador to the U.S. thinks there's something 'wrong' with Democrats sympathizing with both the Israeli and Palestinian causes, and he wants Israel to spend mega-bucks to re-educate them. That's obnoxious - and doomed to failure

Heather Stone
Elana Sztokman
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A 2012 image of Michael Oren, when he was Israel's ambassador to the United States.
Michael Oren speaking in Washington in 2012, when he was Israel's ambassador to the United States.Credit: Jay Mallin/Bloomberg
Heather Stone
Elana Sztokman

Michael Oren is an observant guy. The former Israeli Ambassador to the United States and current deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Office recently noticed that many progressive American Jews are unhappy with Israel. That's the good news – and does not in itself constitute evidence that he has gone off the rails, as Haaretz's Allison Kaplan Sommer hinted.

Unfortunately, rather than engaging with the sentiment of American-Jewish disappointment in Israel, he has taken the patronizing approach of asserting that progressives need to be "reformed". This is not only a bad sign for Oren. It is also a bad omen for the relationship between Israel and the American Jewish community.

In a recent interview with The Times of Israel, Oren cited a recent Pew study that found that a nearly equal number of American Jews sympathized with Israel as sympathized with the Palestinians. Taking a Rocky Balboa approach to that statistic, as if political views are a winner-takes-all fight-to-the-death prize to be won, he proposed using some Israeli mega-budgets to target Jewish progressives in order to convince them (us) that we are wrong.

His idea reads like a strange cross between kiruv and conversion therapy. As if to say that American Jews who hold progressive views must have something wrong with their brains or their chemistry. Cue eye-roll.  

As those who would be the likely target of such a campaign – we are the Chair and Vice-Chair of Democrats Abroad, Israel – we would like to clarify that his proposed strategy is not only obnoxious but also doomed to failure.

There are a few things wrong with his whole idea.

First of all, sympathy is not a zero-sum -game. Just because a person sympathizes with Palestinians does not mean that they do not sympathize with Israel or vice versa.

This is such a crucial piece of understanding that some of our leaders in Israel and America would do well to note. Jews have some good points, and Palestinians have some good points. It is not one or the other. The future cannot be viewed as us-or-them. Maybe if we stopped this square thinking that "sympathy" is weakness and instead experimented with complex understandings that appreciate all people as real humans, we would be able to find a way out of this ugly quagmire called The Conflict.

Second of all, despite Oren’s assertion, the Democratic Party is not anti-Israel or even pro-BDS. The Democratic Party platform promotes a two-state solution and rejects BDS. Some people are so accustomed to demonizing Democratic leaders with hyperbole, lies, and fear-mongering that they lose sight of basic facts. Progressives are not radical extremists. Actually, we believe that we are kind of, you know, normal.

Furthermore, progressives are currently bearing the entire burden of moral leadership in America. In an administration that is so wrapped up in racism, sexism, professional lying, bullying, economic self-interest and hate-based social policy, American progressives are a group of national heroes. Yes, heroes. And heroines. Thank God a small minority of Jews voted for Trump and there are members of the Jewish community who are still capable of distinguishing right from wrong.

Instead of labeling progressive-minded Jews as needing to be saved, Michael Oren would do well to try and understand why so many of them/us are disillusioned with Israel.

There is no shortage of illustrations.

Religious coercion in marriage-divorce and conversion to the point of legislating that non-Orthodox rabbis can go to prison for performing weddings; the government’s readiness to close down the country on Shabbat and leave non-Jews and non-Orthodox Jews stranded; the constant caving to demands of the radical religious right on budgets and other crucial issues; the arrest of women for wearing a prayer shawl; the tolerance of practices of women’s exclusion in public places; the quashing of the Western Wall compromise.

The readiness to expel 37,000 African refugees.

African migrants demonstrate against Israel's policy of forcibly deporting African refugees and asylum seekers to Uganda and Rwanda, outside the Rwandan embassy in Herzliya, January 22, 2018.
African migrants demonstrate against Israel's policy of forcibly deporting African refugees and asylum seekers to Uganda and Rwanda, outside the Rwandan embassy in Herzliya, January 22, 2018.Credit: JACK GUEZ/AFP

And not the least of all, the government’s failure to present any kind of real vision for coexistence with the Palestinians.

All of this and more contributes to the disgruntledness of American Jewish progressives.  

We don’t need to be saved. We need solutions. We need moral leadership. We need signs of hope.

If Oren wants to win back progressives, he can start by addressing the moral bankruptcy of the Netanyahu government. Even better, spend those mega-shekel budgets on promoting shared society initiatives, supporting religious pluralism, protecting refugees, or advancing gender equality in society. Then they might have a chance of winning back our sympathies.  

Heather Stone is the Chair of Democrats Abroad Israel. Twitter: @heather_hstone3 

Elana Sztokman is the Vice Chair for Media and Policy of Democrats Abroad Israel. Twitter: @jewfem

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